Emerging amongst the appropriation artists of the 1980s, Richard Prince stood out for the distinctive coolness of his work. While many of the re-photographers of his generation were inspired by postmodern theories on authenticity and originality, Prince’s work simultaneously reflected a decidedly American cultural influence through his fascination with cowboys, bikers, lowbrow American humor and cars. After his iconic series of cowboy photographs in the early 1980s, in which Prince explored his signature conceptual strategy of appropriating imagery from advertising whilst referring to archetypes of the American dream, he returned to Los Angeles in 1987 and began sending away for car hoods advertised in the back of muscle car magazines.
The car hood, a perennial launching pad for heroes, anti-heroes and villains sliding into action, is the visual surrogate for the horsepower and torque contained within the engine block beneath it. As the artist explained: "It was the perfect thing to paint. Great size. Great subtext. Great reality. Great thing that actually got painted out there, out there in real life. I mean I didn't have to make this shit up. It was there. Teenagers knew it. It got 'teen-aged;' Primed. Flaked. Stripped. Bondo-ed. Lacquered. Nine coats. Sprayed. Numbered. Advertised on. Raced. Fucking Steve McQueened" (Richard Prince, quoted in "In the Picture: Jeff Rian in conversation with Richard Prince," Rosetta Brooks, Jeffrey Rian and Luc Sante, Eds., Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 23).” It was in a 1968 Mustang GT 390 that Steve McQueen captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation, if not the vast majority of a counterculture hungry 1960s America. Emerging in the rearview mirror and subsequently chasing down a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T in Bullitt, McQueen transformed a car into a symbol of power and strength by racing it across the silver screen. Similarly, Prince has chased down our preconceived notions of medium, challenging us to look at his Car Hoods not as sculpture or painting, but for what they are.
American Place confronts the viewer with a strangely puzzling juxtaposition of a work that is equal parts minimalist sculpture and hard edged painting. The composition of contrasting colors gives a subtle nod to Ellsworth Kelly's masterful compositions. The tranquil darkness of the polished top is interrupted by three black vertical lines, the central being the most prominent, reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s awe-inspiring paintings of Zips. Yet at the same time, American Place can be interpreted as a sculpture. Its three-dimensionality persists against the monochromatic flatness, and remains perceptible in the shadows of the wall relief, giving mystery to appease what is quintessentially meditative in its simplicity. In doing so, Prince has taken the car hood, a piece of unwavering Americana, and catapulted it into the echelon of fine art, effectively transforming these eroticized icons of unbridled masculinity into objects of aesthetic sophistication.
Ultimately, as in most of Prince’s work, American Place offers a snippet of the American dream. Borrowed from the hallowed anatomy of a muscle car, the hood becomes a personal investigation into days gone by, leaving its viewers longing for nostalgia. Now, more than ever, Prince’s Car Hoods transport their audience to a time before self-driving cars were an inevitability, when a premium was placed on what was under the hood and when knowing the feeling of going full throttle on an open road was a shared experience. Prince's audience remembers the pleasure of living vicariously through Frank Bullitt, if only for the run time of the film. As Jack Banowsky writes, “With his unique blend of wit and insight, Prince turns a perfunctory item into an object that symbolizes the 'near sacred ideals of youth, speed, romance and danger'"(Jack Banowsky, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, in Exh. Cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York 2007, p. 93). In this way, unclassified within the context of painting or sculpture, American Place stands alone, not in stillness of immobility, but in the contrapposto of immanence and action.
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